Last week we published a review of the BBC mini-drama Murdered By My Father, a film that tells the story of Salma, a victim of honor-based violence. We sat down with the actress who portrayed her, Kiran Sonia Sawar, to talk about what went in to creating the character.
For you, who is Salma?
For me, I just really wanted to make her like an everyday girl. Like someone who every British Asian person or young British person walking down the street could directly relate to. I wanted to make her really intelligent and front-footed in all her choices, not someone who is always getting pushed around.
That’s really interesting that you say someone everybody could relate to. In America we don’t really have casts of all people of color, very unlike this drama. Was it a challenge to create a character that was relatable and not stereotypical?
It was important to me that religion was not like the main crux behind everything. I guess I cheated a little bit because I am British Asian and I lived her life. That’s what was so strong about the cast — majority were of Pakistani origin. It was important to appeal to people outside the ethnic bracket and hopefully it’s made people go like “Oh, what?”
You feel like you can’t talk about [honor killings]. As a British Asian person myself, there’s a kind of shame around it. I went to Catholic school and the last thing I was going to do was open up a conversation about arranged marriages with my white Catholic school girlfriends.
When I was in the UK, my British Asian friends not only didn’t talk about it but there was a feeling like it happened to other people. Like we were Hindu or they were Sikh and that’s not something that happened to us.
That’s what happens in the British Asian community where the mentality is that we’re more Westernized or more “modern” so you don’t relate to something that is happening within your own culture because it goes back to something you’re trying to distance yourself from.
What was it like getting in the mind of a potential murder victim? There’s no moment watching the movie, or I guess reading the script, for something called “Murdered By My Father” that you’re left doubting the ending.
I was so conscious of not being aware of the way it ended. Each scene had to be played not knowing what the result is. I did a lot of research, watched a lot of documentaries about women speaking about honor killings. I discovered that most of the research I did that it normally was a surprise. There was maybe a build up of a couple of months or a couple of weeks but it always seemed to be the case of “oh it won’t happen to me” and then something stupid thing would happen and it would just end in disaster.
What was so vital about this project for you?
I really really felt like this story needed to be told and it needed to be told in a delicate way, in a sensitive way that didn’t hide away from the actual issue. When I heard that they were doing this project I just wanted to be involved in it and be part of telling the story.
The way other similar projects have attacked religion as being the reason behind [honor killings] is horrendous and irresponsible. So when this came about I asked whether it was going to be about religion or what and when they said that it wouldn’t I was really excited about it.
It’s a very male-dominated cast, too. What was it like having a distinctly vulnerable feminine story within that context?
It was very strange to begin with as it was very male-dominated, as most of the film industry is — cast and crew and production. And it was like I was telling the story of this young girl but I think it kind’ve helped. It made me fight for my own corner and fight for my own decisions. I learned a lot from it. I learned how to protect myself and how to not be intimated by environments.
It felt like Sal was being pushed along by the male characters in her life. Like every time she tried to oppose or side-step their actions they made it impossible.
Sal’s problem is that she’s trying to protect the feelings of everyone around her. And that can’t last forever, it’s impossible. So she found herself constantly torn and self-sabotaging to a point.
I really appreciated her position. I feel like it’s a very South Asian thing to do to want want you want but want your parents to be ok with it too.
Strong family relationships are left out a lot of the time telling these kind of stories. And they’re really important. It was important in this story that the family was seen as a real family unit and that they all relied on one another.
Yeah. And when it comes to honor-based violence it always feels like it comes out of a need to protect the community, like a weird anti-body system, rather than an act of passion or something.
I was really nervous when the film came out about what the community would say. What’s been really interesting is getting messages and hearing that like uncles and dads and granddads saying to their kids that they should watch it. That’s incredible! That’s the older generation telling the younger ones, online as well. They’re engaging in something that they’ve seen that they’re not ashamed by.